restricted access Understanding Primo Levi by Nicholas Patruno (review)
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86Rocky Mountain Review NICHOLAS PATRUNO. Understanding Primo Levi. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995. 170 p. .Nicholas Patruno's volume on Primo Levi forms part of the University of South Carolina's series entitled Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature, of which several volumes have been published already and which is edited by James N. Hardin. As one would expect, the format of Patruno's book conforms to this series, offering one chapter on each of Primo Levi's major works, arranged in chronological order: chapter 1, Survival in Auschwitz; chapter 2, The Reawakening; chapter 3, The Periodic Table; chapter 4, The Monkey's Wrench; chapter 5, If Not Now, When?; chapter 6, The Drowned and the Saved; chapter 7, Stories and Essays. Notwithstanding this restriction, to which Patruno conforms easily, his work represents the first, comprehensive book-length study to be published in English on Primo Levi. Because Patruno's book does not (and should not—given the nature of the series) address a highly specialized readership, his book acts as a beautiful overview of the Italian author's opera omnia and can be useful to upper-level undergraduates, to graduate students, and to generalists interested in Primo Levi's works. Recently, I welcomed the opportunity to speak with Patruno about his volume. He explained to me that, especially when dealing with Levi's autobiographical memoirs, he strove to find the balance between a purely textual criticism and the profound respect for the horrible experiences suffered by Primo Levi, such an extraordinary witness to the Shoah. It is very clear that Auschwitz was a real tragedy, a scar for life, and that Levi's own dignity was a moral issue for Patruno. During our conversation, Patruno also shared how he, both as a reader and as a critic, reacted to Levi's texts; and about how effectively Levi (well known for his explicit role as a witness, but not as a judge) was able to elicit responses for crimes against humanity from his readers. Patruno found that, among other reasons, Levi's books are so forceful because the prose narrative appears to be detached from the events recalled (and I stress the word appears, here). It is in light of Levi's apparent objectiveness, clarity, and emotional detachment from his subject matter that many readers may have resented his alleged suicide in 1987, reasons Patruno. Understanding Primo Levi is an honest study, well written, well thought out, and convincing. Patruno's chapters flow nicely one after the other, and are tied together coherently. Most importantly, Patruno's book is a companion to Levi's works, not a substitute for them. In fact, Patruno does not make use of extensive quotes from Levi's own work in this book: rather, he prepares the English-speaking reader to discover Levi in translation, and to uncover Levi's main metaphors and motifs. My only reservation about this work concerns the fact that no significant space is devoted to Levi's poetry which is abundant, impressive, and seminal , I believe, to the understanding of his prose work. While traditionally Levi's poetry had been confined to his "minor works," recent scholarship is discovering that the key to understanding the complete psychological profile Book Reviews87 of Primo Levi might just as well reside in his verse. It is here, unlike in his prose, that Levi's ghosts and nightmares from his past burden him violently . Other, almost negligible mistakes in this book include, for instance, a missing endnote (#3, from ch. 6), and minor punctuation problems such as faulty capitalization and missing umlauts. I would also have to add that one misses a concluding chapter in Patruno's work (the ending is anti-climactic ), especially because he has so intelligently and open-mindedly guided his reader through some 150 pages. His own closure would be welcomed, much like his coherent and appreciated six-page introduction which draws his coordinates so clearly for his readers. Overall, though, Primo Levi by Patruno is an excellent book: there is solid, thorough research, and months, if not years, of preparation which shine throughout. The updated bibliography is intelligently selective, and includes only titles that are truly...